The Sleepwalkers

No nation or empire lasts forever. Herman Broch wrote a great novel early in the last century entiteld “The Sleepwalkers” about the privileged class of Vienna on the brink of the World War One, the empire about to fall and social order disrupted. But they continue to walk through life with the same petty concerns and selfish pursuits as if nothing were wrong, even though they perceived it had all gone haywire.

The life of nations is much like a version of Pac-Man where you begin with a finite number of lives, but aren’t aware of how many turns you get. Some may play a glorious turn that stretches on for hours, but it all ends with the first ghost capturing Pac-Man. Others could be played with complete mediocrity, but stretch on for hours because the game just gifted them lots and lots of chances to try again.

The United States is a little of both of those examples. We’ve had some astoundingly successful runs, so successful that we tend to think of ourselves as special and unique. In some very important ways, that status is deserved. But lately, we’ve been burning through our Pac-Men at a terrifying rate. Our turns are lasting seconds, not minutes. What’s worse, our goals have become warped. On some turns, we do little more than try to get revenge on the Blue ghost just because we’ve decided he’s our nemesis. If we gobble the ghost but lose soon afterwards, we even convince ourselves it’s a small victory.

We can’t really know for sure whether we are coming to the end of our game, but it sure feels that way. We used to be good at this game, now we keep playing just because the coding has let us go again and again and again. But this nagging feeling that it’s all going to come down is dragging on us.

When I observe people out and about in the world these days, the first thing I notice is how few of them there are. Most people are still at home at most times on most days. Those who are out seem to fit Herman Broch’s description. They are going through the motions of a normal life, but they aren’t really living them. They are hanging on for dear life to what we’ve grown to accept as normal.

There’s a vitality missing, however, and the social circles are tiny. People talk about plans that have been pushed back … maybe this fall … maybe next year. All of this is just resumption, as if we will at once awake from the dream/nightmare and resume. The infinite lives given to our national leaders — not just political, but also economic and cultural — give us some comfort that a return to the past is just a matter of time.

Great disruptions like this, however, almost never lead to an easy resumption of lives as once lived. Often periods of great hardship are followed by times of rampant hedonism — the 1920s being a prime example. It is hard to imagine our culture finding a way to become even more nihilistic, narcissistic and hedonistic than it is already, but who knows, maybe that’s just a view of an old man who cannot fully appreciate how younger people are living today and what they yearn for.

That might be the best we can hope for, a deeper escapism to make us forget all that we’ve lost. There’s a darker possibility as well, unfortunately. The next ghost that gobbles our Pac-Man could very well be the last. That feeling that we are running out of chances could be prescient.

In that case, this period of sleepwalking may be seen in future generations as our period of self delusion, our time of pretending that we will soon return to the same world that is rapidly crumbling around us. No one really knows what game over for us will mean, and I for one am not eager to find out.

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